The blurb for The Death Of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell will undoubtedly polarise potential readers. There will be some who find the idea of two young Glaswegian council estate girls burying their parents in their back garden a little contrived and soap opera-y and there will be others who infer the promise of a drama rich with mystery, and an insight into the minds of two young girls fighting for survival in an adult world.
O’Donnell alludes to but deliberately omits specifics of the abuse the girls suffer at the hands of their father, but is more fearless in confronting the impact of the neglect. O’Donnell’s reluctance to engage with grim discomfiting details could be an effort to avoid trivialising or making voyeuristic what is a traumatic subject matter or it could be that she is letting us intuit the impact of the abuse through more subtle means. The result of this reticence is that, regardless of first-person narrative, the girls are less available and more guarded, less confessional and more censored.
This is not to say that emotional engagement is wholly elusive and O’Donnell sensitively constructs a complex relationship between sisters Marnie and Nelly who are in turns aggressive and irritable, fiercely loving and staunchly protective of one another. Nelly seeks refuge from her painful memories and experience by adopting an offbeat persona and Marnie opts for the more traditional route of promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse. The girls are hard to like and hard to get to know at first but stoical and determined readers will find perseverance pays off and layer by layer the girls become more human.
Thematically this novel seems to be about monsters. O’Donnell questions what a monster is. Are the girls monsters for burying their parents and keeping it a secret? Were the parents monsters for the ways in which they neglected and abused their daughters? Is Lennie, their elderly gay next-door neighbour a monster because of a taboo transgression? Is Robert T Macdonald, the girls’ errant grandfather, a monster of a more insidious kind? O’Donnell never overtly excuses any of the characters for their varying misdemeanours but she does offer explanations, reasons, causes and context which show a story behind every monster and a well-marked path from blameless to the blamed.
The novel uses multiple narrators in Marnie, Nelly and their neighbour Lennie. This alternating point of view is useful for internal monologues, eking out the plot and divulging secrets, but at times they are more like vignettes and break the spell of fiction through functional reported summaries of recent events. Key moments to build suspense and drama are often missed with this style of retrospective commentary and the reader is rarely allowed the chance to be immersed in the immediacy of the story at points in the plot which could be exciting and ripe with tension.
The Death Of Bees is disturbing, engrossing and bluntly human at times but O’Donnell’s restraint and functional use of first-person narration often puts the reader at a considerable distance from the character and it can be hard work building a relationship with the sisters, leaving an acute disappointment that we didn’t get to know them quite as intimately as we might have hoped.
Rosa Meekums is from Manchester. She is pathologically indecisive and can’t make up her mind about where she wants to live. She is a freelance writer with a diverse portfolio ranging from travel features to opinion pieces. Rosa can be contacted at twitter.com/#!/RosaMeekums.